Episode 350: Bigfeet and Littlefeet

It’s another spooky episode (three out of five bats on this year’s spookiness scale), with suggestions from Will and Pranav!

Further reading:

Tracking the Swamp Monsters

Further watching:

The Harlan Ford Footage (Honey Island Swamp Monster)

A crab-eating macaque:

A plaster cast purportedly from the Honey Island Swamp Monster’s footprints [photo from article linked above]:

Alligator tracks in the mud [photo from this site]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week as monster month continues, we’ll learn about three more strange bipedal monsters suggested by Will and Pranav. This is another episode that I’ll give three out of five bats for spookiness. We’ve definitely got some spooky monsters this year (also you may be sensing a theme).

We’ll start with Will’s suggestion, the yara-ma-yha-who. We talked about it once before back in episode 219, but it’s such a strange monster that it definitely deserves more attention.

According to a 1932 book called Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals, the yara-ma-yha-who is a little red goblin creature that stands about four feet tall, or 1.2 meters. It’s skinny all over except for its head and belly, and its mouth is especially big, like a frog’s mouth. It doesn’t have any teeth, but it can open its jaws incredibly wide like a snake, which allows it to swallow its food whole. And what is its food? People!

The yara-ma-yha-who was supposed to live in trees, especially the wild fig tree that has thick branches. In the summer when someone would stop under the tree for shade, or in the winter when it was rainy and someone would stop for shelter, the yara-ma-yha-who would drop down and grab the person.

The ends of the yara-ma-yha-who’s fingers were said to be cup-shaped suckers, and when the suckers fastened onto a person’s arm, they were able to suck blood right through the person’s skin. After the person became weak from blood loss and fainted, the yara-ma-yha-who was able to swallow them whole.

After that, the yara-ma-yha-who would drink a lot of water and fall asleep, and when it woke up it would vomit up its meal. If the person was still alive, they were supposed to lie still and pretend to be dead even while the yara-ma-yha-who poked at them to see if they responded. If the person moved, the yara-ma-yha-who would swallow them again and the whole thing would start over. But every time a person was swallowed by the little red goblin, when they were vomited up again they were shorter and redder, until after three or four times if they couldn’t get away, the person was transformed into another yara-ma-yha-who.

Some cryptozoologists speculate that the yara-ma-yha-who may be based on the tarsier, which is the subject of episode 219 and why we talked about this particular monster in that episode. The tarsier has never lived in Australia, although it does live in relatively nearby islands. Most tarsier species have toe pads that help them cling to branches, but so do many frogs that do live in Australia. It’s much more likely that the legend of the yara-ma-yha-who was inspired by frogs, snakes, monitor lizards, and other Australian animals. More importantly, the monster was used as a cautionary tale to warn children not to go off by themselves into the bush.

Unfortunately, the only information about the yara-ma-yha-who comes from this 1932 book. We don’t know which Aboriginal peoples this story was collected from, and we don’t know how much it was changed in translation to English. It’s still a fun story, though.

Next, we’ll talk about Pranav’s suggestions. Last week we talked about the monkey-man of New Delhi, and one of the monsters we’ll cover today is also a monkey-man from Asia, this time from Singapore. It’s the Bukit Timah Monkey-Man, said to mainly live in the Bukit Timah rainforest nature reserve but occasionally seen in the city surrounding the nature reserve.

The Bukit Timah Monkey-Man is supposed to look like a monkey the size of a human. It walks like a human on two legs and otherwise looks like a person, but is covered in gray hair and has a monkey-like face. It’s only ever seen at night and although people are scared when they see it, the monster has never attacked anyone and doesn’t seem to be interested in people at all. The oldest report possibly dates back to 1805, or to the 1940s according to other accounts, but sightings are rare.

One very common monkey that lives in Bukit Timah is the crab-eating macaque, also called the long-tailed macaque and I bet you can guess why. Its tail is longer than its body, although its arms and legs are shorter than in most monkeys. It mostly lives on the ground and eats pretty much anything, although most of its diet is fruit and other plant materials. It does sometimes eat crabs, and is good at swimming and diving to find them, but it also eats bird eggs and nestlings, lizards, frogs, insects, and other small animals. It even has a cheek pouch where it can store extra food to eat later.

Like the rhesus macaque we talked about last week, the crab-eating macaque is pretty small, with a big male weighing about 20 lbs, or 9 kg, at most. That’s about the size of a small dog. The fur on its back and head is a light golden brown, and its face, arms and legs, and underparts are gray with white markings. Its tail is usually darker brown. In other words, in the dark it might look like it’s pale gray all over but its tail is harder to see, and the monkey-man isn’t reported to have a tail.

The crab-eating macaque is common in the city of Bukit Timah, and in fact it’s common in a lot of cities and is even an invasive species in some parts of the world. People in Bukit Timah are used to seeing this particular type of monkey, but it’s so small that no one could mistake it for a human-sized monster. Then again, most of the stories about the monkey-man are friend-of-a-friend stories, often told by children to scare each other. It’s very likely that the Bukit Timah monkey-man is just an urban legend.

Our last monster this week is another suggestion by Pranav, the Honey Island Swamp monster. This one is from the United States, specifically the Honey Island Swamp in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana.

In 1974, a couple of hunters claimed they found strange footprints in the swamp, and had seen the monster itself back in 1963. They said it stood seven feet tall, or over 2 meters, and was covered with long gray hair. Its eyes were a brilliant amber in color. The monster was on all fours at first, but when it heard the men talking it stood up to look at them, then ran away. Heavy rain later that day washed its tracks away.

When the men saw the same tracks in 1974, they used plaster to make copies of the footprints. But the footprints don’t look like plaster casts of other bigfoot-type tracks, which resemble giant human footprints. The swamp monster appears to have four toes that are spread widely apart, with one sticking out to the side like a thumb, and show the impression of webbing in between. It’s also not that big of a foot, not quite 10 inches long, or 25 cm.

Both the hunters were air traffic controllers, which is a job that requires people to make decisions carefully and remain calm in stressful situations, in order to keep airplanes from crashing into each other. These were the sort of people you’d trust if they told you they’d seen something really weird in the swamp. The two men were even interviewed for an episode of the TV show “In Search Of” that aired in 1978, which popularized the Honey Island Swamp monster outside of the local area. Both men continued to search for the monster, reporting that they’d caught at least one more glimpse of it and had even shot at it without apparently hitting it.

One of the men, Harlan Ford, died in 1980. He had taken up wildlife photography after his retirement and when his granddaughter was going through his belongings, she found some Super 8 film footage that showed something very peculiar. It was a brief video of the swamp, but if you look closely, a shadowy human-sized figure crosses behind trees from right to left, visible for maybe half a second. I put a link in the show notes if you want to look at the footage yourself. It took me two watches before I noticed the figure and to me it looks like the shadow of a human walking normally, but it’s so grainy it’s hard to tell.

It’s possible that the two men decided to have fun with a harmless prank about a monster in the swamp, but so many people took them seriously that it kind of got out of hand. Then again, maybe they did genuinely see something unusual. That doesn’t mean it was an actual monster, though. Black bears do live in the swamp, and my personal theory is that bears are responsible for a whole lot of bigfoot sightings.

The American alligator is also common in the area. The gator’s front feet have five toes, but the hind feet only have four. The toes are webbed to help the gator swim more easily, and the front foot’s pinkie toe usually sticks out to the side. Sometimes the first two toes of the front foot are held close enough together that they look like one big toe. Usually an alligator drags its tail as it walks, but it also has a gait called the high walk where its tail is completely off the ground. The plaster tracks found by the two hunters in 1974 look suspiciously like a really big alligator print, probably twice the size of an ordinary adult gator.

More importantly, people who have lived in the Honey Island swamp their entire lives, fishing and hunting and running boat tours, don’t report ever seeing an animal they don’t recognize. Maybe there is an incredibly rare monster that lives in the swamps and walks bipedally at least part of the time, but more likely the Honey Island Swamp Monster is a tall tale.

There are a lot of reasons why people tell stories about swamp monsters or monkey-men or murderous red goblins. It’s a good way to stop little kids from wandering around in dangerous places, and it’s fun to scare yourself and others with a story when you know you’re actually safe. There are plenty of dangerous animals in the world, many of which are completely unknown to science. I just don’t think these three are ones you need to worry about.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 349: The Masked Monkey-Man

Thanks to Pranav for suggesting one of the monsters we’re talking about this week! This episode is rated three out of five bats on our spookiness scale.

Further reading:

The Return of Spring-Heeled Jack

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

As monster month continues, this week we have a really spooky episode on a topic Pranav suggested a long time ago. I’m rating it three out of five bats, meaning that if you’re one of our younger listeners, you might want to skip this one or make sure to listen to it in the daytime with your favorite grown-ups around you. It’s about the monkey-man of New Delhi, but we’re also going to talk about one of my favorite monsters too as part of it.

In May of 2001, several families made a strange complaint to the police in the city of Ghaziabad in India, near the capital city of New Delhi. A masked man had sneaked into their homes and pushed and scratched people before running away into the darkness. No one was badly injured, but they were definitely scared.

Then other people started reporting something similar in parts of East Delhi. People were left with scratches and bruises caused by a masked man, according to some witnesses. But others said they were attacked by a monkey.

As the reports flooded in over the next few days, the reports got stranger and stranger. The attacker was said to be a man with a monkey-like face, a big monkey wearing skin-tight clothes and a helmet, a creature with black fur and glowing cat eyes, even a robot with metal claws. It could reportedly jump incredibly high and even disappear. No one could agree on what the attacker looked like, but before long everyone was jumpy and ready to run if they even thought the strange creature was nearby. This sadly led to at least two people dying on different occasions when they panicked and tripped down stairs.

The police tried their best to find the culprit, but it was always gone before they arrived. Meanwhile, the news media exaggerated the reports and whipped people into a frenzy of fear. But despite all the sightings, no one ever got even a blurry photo of the so-called monkey-man. When the police questioned people who were supposedly attacked, most of them admitted that they hadn’t really seen anything. Often they only felt the presence of the monkey-man, and later noticed bruises or scratches that might have been caused by ordinary events during the day.

Weird as all this sounds, it isn’t the first time such a strange situation has happened in a big city. In 1837, in London, England, a very similar creature caused a very similar panic. The main difference is that instead of a monkey-man, the London monster was more like a devil, sometimes said to have horns and bat wings. He was called spring-heeled Jack.

Spring-heeled Jack got his nickname because he was supposed to be able to jump incredibly high, as though he had springs in his boots. Some reports said the creature had claws, possibly metal ones, that he could shoot sparks or blue fire from his mouth, that he had glowing red eyes, and that his hands felt cold and clammy like a corpse. Some people even referred to him as a ghost.

The monster was supposed to have attacked young women in particular, scratching them with his claws. In the most famous case, a teenaged girl named Jane Alsop was at home in February 1838 when someone knocked on the door and shouted that he was a police officer who had caught spring-heeled Jack! The officer asked for a light, since it was a dark evening, but when Jane brought a candle outside, instead of meeting a valiant police officer who had caught a monster, she only encountered the monster himself. Spring-heeled Jack grabbed her by the neck!

With the help of her sisters, who heard her screams, Jane was able to tear herself away from the monster with only some scratches on her arms and neck. Spring-heeled Jack bounded away into the night. Another encounter only nine days later happened to eighteen-year-old Lucy Scales, who was returning home with her sister in the evening. As they passed an alley, a man wearing a large black cloak jumped out at Lucy, spat blue flame into her face, and hurried away when she collapsed in shock.

As in India over 150 years later, the newspapers printed sensationalized reports of the attacks that made things even worse. The police arrested various men at different times, but there was no evidence that any of them had attacked the women or had dressed up as spring-heeled Jack. The scratches and bruises reported by victims weren’t actually that bad, and might have been caused by anything. In the end, the reports gradually stopped, although there was a brief revival of reports in the 1870s, over 30 years later.

So what’s going on here? Could spring-heeled Jack and the monkey-man of New Delhi be reports of the same creature or entity, with details differing between the two monsters because of the cultural differences of people reporting those details? Where people in modern India might think they see a monkey-man, because monkeys are common in India, people in old-timey England might have though they saw a demonic man since devils and demons were a common aspect of English culture at the time.

Let’s look at the details that both monsters share. Both are mostly described as being human-like in shape. Both walk on two legs, have two arms and a head with human-like features, or at least primate-like features. This argues that the monsters must be some sort of primate. Spring-heeled Jack in particular was always mistaken for an ordinary man at first, so instead of a monkey, he must have been a great ape, and more likely a hominin, or human or human relation. The reports of the monkey-man of New Delhi are less detailed and more varied, but the initial reports and many later ones called him a man, meaning a human male.

In other words, logically both monsters can’t be extraterrestrial creatures or they wouldn’t look and act so similar to earth creatures. Both also had physical aspects, able to interact with people and things normally, so even though some people called spring-heeled Jack a ghost, he actually seemed to be a living creature. And both seemed to be human, or at least human-like.

Maybe the monsters in both cases were just humans.

Some historians think that both the monkey-man and spring-heeled Jack weren’t real monsters at all but urban legends, and most if not all of the reports were caused by mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is a real condition, although it’s rare, where a group of people become convinced that they’re in danger in some way despite a lack of real evidence. Sometimes the group of people will think they’ve been exposed to a dangerous chemical or poison, and will actually show physical symptoms of illness. The symptoms go away after a while with no lasting health issues, but for the people who feel sick, it’s completely real and very scary.

Mass hysteria happens when rumors of danger get repeated so much that people start to believe the danger even though there’s no evidence that it exists. Newspaper and social media reports contribute to the feeling that danger is imminent, and before long everyone’s jumpy and ready to believe any ridiculous story they hear.

In the case of spring-heeled Jack, the very first reports may have been real attacks on people by someone who was trying to scare them or even rob them. Once rumors and newspaper reports got started, before long people were convinced that a dangerous monster was bouncing around in London terrorizing people.

As for the monkey-man, there are many species of monkey that live in India, including some that have moved into cities as cities grow larger and the wilderness areas grow smaller. As many as 40,000 monkeys live in New Delhi alone, mostly rhesus macaques that often steal food, phones, and other items from people. It’s a brown or gray monkey with a pink face and a short tail, and in its natural habitat it spends most of its time in treetops. The rhesus macaque can walk on its hind legs pretty well, but it’s not very big, rarely weighing more than a domestic cat. It eats fruit and other plant material, and while it can be aggressive to humans, most of the time it’s not dangerous. Not only that, but people who live in Delhi and other cities are familiar with the macaques and aren’t afraid of them.

In other words, it’s not very likely that the monkey-man of New Delhi was an actual monkey. The initial reports might have been of a man who was trying to rob people’s homes, or it might even have started when someone had a bad dream. After that, rumors and media accounts made people think they were in danger from the monster.

The next time you start to hear rumors that people are in danger, and the rumors get wilder and wilder, remember the monkey-man and spring-heeled Jack. Take a moment to look at the situation logically, and decide if it’s more likely that a weird monster with metal claws and the ability to jump as high as a rooftop is really running around scaring people, or if that could be an urban legend. Urban legends are fun, but you don’t have to be afraid of them.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 348: Australopithecus and Gigantopithecus

Thanks to Anbo for suggesting Australopithecus! We’ll also learn about Gigantopithecus and Bigfoot!

Further reading:

Ancient human relative, Australopithecus sediba, ‘walked like a human, but climbed like an ape’

Human shoulders and elbows first evolved as brakes for climbing apes

You Won’t Believe What Porcupines Eat

Past tropical forest changes drove megafauna and hominin extinctions

An Australopithecus skeleton [photo by Emőke Dénes – kindly granted by the author, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78612761]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s officially monster month, also known as October, so let’s jump right in with a topic suggested by Anbo! Anbo wanted to learn about Australopithecus, and while we’re at it we’re going to talk about Gigantopithecus and Bigfoot. On our spookiness rating scale of one to five bats, where one bat means it’s not a very spooky episode and five bats means it’s really spooky, this one is going to fall at about two bats, and only because we talk a little bit about the Yeti and Bigfoot at the end.

In 1924 in South Africa, the partial skull of a young primate was discovered. Primates include monkeys and apes along with humans, our very own family tree. This particular fossil was over a million years old and had features that suggested it was an early human ancestor, or otherwise very closely related to humans.

The fossil was named Australopithecus, which means “southern ape.” Since 1924 we’ve discovered more remains, enough that currently, seven species of Australopithecus are recognized. The oldest dates to a bit over 4 million years old and was discovered in eastern Africa.

Australopithecus was probably pretty short compared to most modern humans, although they were probably about the size of modern chimpanzees. A big male might have stood about 4 ½ feet tall, or 1.5 meters. They were bipedal, meaning they would have stood and walked upright all the time. That’s the biggest hint that they were closely related to humans. Other great apes can walk upright if they want, but only humans and our closest ancestors are fully bipedal.

In 2008 a palaeoanthropologist named Lee Rogers Berger took his nine-year-old son Matthew to Malapa Cave in South Africa. Dr. Berger was leading an excavation of the cave and Matthew wanted to see it. While he was there, Matthew noticed something that even his father had overlooked. It turned out to be a collarbone belonging to an Australopithecus boy who lived almost 2 million years ago. Later, Dr Berger’s team uncovered more of the skeleton and determined that the remains belonged to a new species of Australopithecus, which they named Australopithecus sediba. More remains of this species were discovered later, including a beautifully preserved lower back. That discovery was important because it allowed scientists to determine that this species of Australopithecus had already evolved the inward curve in the lower back that humans still have, which helps us walk on two legs more easily. That was a surprise, since A. sediba also still shows features that indicate they could still climb trees like a great ape.

It’s possible that Australopithecus, along with other species of early humans, climbed trees at night to stay safe from predators. In the morning, they climbed down to spend the day mostly on the ground. One study published only a few weeks ago as this episode goes live suggests that the flexible shoulders and elbows that humans share with our great ape cousins originally evolved to help apes climb down from trees safely. Monkeys don’t share our flexible shoulder and elbow joints because they’re much lighter weight than a human or ape, and don’t need as much flexibility to keep from falling while climbing down. Apes and hominins like humans can raise our arms straight up over our heads, and we can straighten our arms out completely flat. Australopithecus could do the same. The study suggests that when another human ancestor, Homo erectus, figured out how to use fire, they stopped needing to climb trees so often. They evolved broader shoulders that allowed them to throw spears and other weapons much more accurately.

Australopithecus probably mostly ate fruit and other plant materials like vegetables and nuts, along with small animals that they could catch fairly easily. This is similar to the diet of many great apes today. The big controversy, though, is whether Australopithecus made and used tools. Their hands would have been more like the hands of a bonobo or chimpanzee, which have a lot of dexterity, but not the really high-level dexterity of modern humans and our closest ancestors. Stone tools have been found in the same areas where Australopithecus fossils have been found, but we don’t have any definitive proof that they made or used the tools. There were other early hominins living in the area who might have made the tools instead.

We also don’t really know what Australopithecus looked like. Some scientists think they had a lot of body hair that would have made them look more like apes than early humans, while some scientists think they had already started losing a lot of body hair and would have looked more human-like as a result.

There’s no question these days that Australopithecus was an early human ancestor. We don’t have very many remains, but we do have several skulls and some nearly complete skeletons, which tells us a lot about how our distant ancestor lived. But we know a lot less about a fossil ape that lived as recently as 350,000 years ago, and it’s become confused with modern stories of Bigfoot.

Gigantopithecus first appears in the fossil record about 2 million years ago. It lived in what is now southern China, although it was probably also present in other parts of Asia. It was first discovered in 1935 when an anthropologist identified two teeth as belonging to an unknown species of ape, and since then scientists have found over a thousand teeth and four jawbones, more properly called mandibles.

The problem is that we don’t have any other Gigantopithecus bones. We don’t have a skull or any parts of the body. All we have are a few mandibles and lots and lots of teeth. The reason we have so many teeth is because Gigantopithecus had massive molars, the biggest of any known species of ape, with a protective layer of enamel that was as much as 6 mm thick. Some of the teeth were almost an inch across, or 22 mm. A lot of the remaining bones were probably eaten by porcupines, and in fact the mandibles discovered show evidence of being gnawed on. This sounds bizarre, but porcupines are well-known to eat old bones along with the shed antlers of deer, which supplies them with important nutrients. The teeth were too hard for the porcupines to eat.

We know that Gigantopithecus was a big ape just from the size of its mandible, but without any other bones we can only guess at how big it really was. It was potentially much bigger and taller than even the biggest gorilla, but maybe it had a great big jaw but short legs and it just sat around and ate plants all the time. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that its massive jaw and teeth were adapted for eating fibrous plant material, not meat. The thick enamel would help protect the teeth from grit and dirt, which suggested it ate tubers and roots that would have had a lot of dirt on them, although its diet was probably more varied. Scientists have even discovered traces of seeds from fruits belonging to the fig family stuck in some of the fossilized teeth, and evidence of tooth cavities that would have resulted from eating a lot of fruit long before toothpaste was invented.

Many scientists thought at first that Gigantopithecus was a human ancestor, but one that grew to gigantic size. It was even thought to be a close relation to Australopithecus. Other scientists argued that Gigantopithecus was more closely related to modern great apes like the orangutan. The debate on where Gigantopithecus should be classified in the ape and human family tree happened to overlap with another debate about a giant ape-like creature, the Yeti of Asia and the Bigfoot of North America.

We talked about the Yeti way back in episode 35, our very first monster month episode in 2017. Expeditions by European explorers to summit Mount Everest, which is on the border between China and Nepal, started in 1921. That first expedition found tracks in the snow resembling a bare human foot at an elevation of 20,000 feet, or 6,100 meters. They realized the tracks were probably made by wolves, with the front and rear tracks overlapping, which only looked human-like after the snow melted enough to obscure the paw pads. Expedition leader Charles Howard-Bury wrote in a London Times article that the expedition’s Sherpa guides claimed the tracks were made by a wild hairy man, but he also made it clear that this was just a superstition. But journalists loved the idea of a mysterious wild man living on Mount Everest. One journalist in particular, Henry Newman, interviewed the guides and specifically asked them about the creature. He wrote a sensational account of the wild man, but he mistranslated their term for it as the abominable snowman.

The word Yeti comes from a Sherpa term yeh-teh, meaning “animal of rocky places,” although it may be related to the term meh-teh, which means man-bear. But the peoples who live in and around the Himalayas belong to different cultures and speak a lot of different languages. There are lots of stories about the hairy wild man of the mountains, and lots of different words to describe the creature of those stories. And the idea of the Yeti that has become popular in Europe and North America doesn’t match up with the local stories. Locals describe the Yeti as brown, black, or even reddish in color, not white, and it doesn’t always have human-like characteristics. Sometimes it’s described as bear-like, panther-like, or just a general monster.

The abominable snowman, or Yeti, became popular in newspaper articles after the 1921 Mount Everest expedition, and it continued to be a topic of interest as expeditions kept attempting to summit the mountain. It wasn’t until May 26, 1953 that the first humans reached the tippy-top of Mount Everest, the New Zealand explorer Edmund Hillary and the Nepali Sherpa climber Tenzing Norgay. Many other successful expeditions followed, including some that were mounted specifically to search for the Yeti.

In the meantime, across the planet in North America, a Canadian schoolteacher and government agent named John W. Burns was collecting reports of hairy wild men and giants from the native peoples in British Columbia. He’s the one who coined the term Sasquatch in 1929. In the 1930s, a man in Washington state in the U.S, which is close to British Columbia, Canada, carved some giant feet out of wood and made tracks with them in a national forest to scare people, leading to a whole spate of big human-like tracks being faked in California and other places. But it wasn’t until 1982 that the hoaxes started to be revealed as the perpetrators got old and decided to clear up the mystery.

But in the 1920s and later, the popularity of the abominable snowman in popular media, giant gorillas like King Kong in the movies, the Yeti expeditions in the Himalayas, the mysterious giant footprints on the west coast of North America, and John Burns’s articles about the Sasquatch all combined to make Bigfoot, a catchall term for any giant human-like monster, a modern legend. People who believed that Bigfoot was a real creature started looking for evidence of its existence beyond footprints and reports of sightings. In 1960, a zoologist writing about a photograph of supposed Yeti tracks taken in 1951 suggested that the Yeti might be related to Gigantopithecus.

On the surface this actually makes sense. The Yeti, AKA the abominable snowman, is reported in the Himalayan Mountains of Asia. The mountain range started forming 40 to 50 million years ago when the Indian tectonic plate crashed into the Eurasian plate very slowly, pushing its way under the Eurasian plate and scrunching the land up into massively huge mountains. It’s still moving, by the way, and the Himalayas get about 5 mm taller every year. The eastern section of the Himalayas isn’t that far from where Gigantopithecus remains have been found in China, and we also know that at many times in the earth’s recent past, eastern Asia and western North America were connected by the land bridge Beringia. Humans and many animals crossed Beringia to reach North America, so why not Gigantopithecus or its descendants? That would explain why Bigfoot is so big, since in 1957 one scientist estimated that Gigantopithecus might have stood up to 12 feet tall, or 3.7 meters.

Some people still think Gigantopithecus was a cousin of Australopithecus, that it walked upright but was huge, and that its descendants are still around today, hiding in remote areas and only glimpsed occasionally. But people who believe such an idea are stuck in the past, because in the last 60 years we’ve learned a whole lot more about Gigantopithecus.

These days, more sophisticated study of Gigantopithecus fossils have allowed scientists to classify it as a great ape ancestor, not an early human. Gigantopithecus was probably most closely related to modern orangutans, in fact, and may have shared a lot of traits with orangutans. It probably could walk upright if it wanted to, but it wasn’t fully bipedal the way humans and human ancestors are. One theory prevalent in 2017 when we talked about the Yeti before was that Gigantopithecus mostly ate bamboo and might have gone extinct when the giant panda started competing with its food sources. This theory has already fallen out of favor, though, and we know that Gigantopithecus was eating a much more varied diet than just bamboo.

We also know that Gigantopithecus lived in tropical broadleaf forests common throughout southern Asia at the time. About a million years ago, though, many of these forests became grasslands. Gigantopithecus probably went extinct as a direct result of its forest home vanishing. It just couldn’t find enough food and shelter on open grasslands, and even though it held on for hundreds of thousands of years, by about 350,000 years ago it had gone extinct. Around 100,000 years ago the forests started reclaiming much of these grasslands, but by then it was too late for Gigantopithecus. Meanwhile, the oldest evidence we have of the land bridge Beringia joining Asia and North America was 70,000 years ago.

There is no evidence that any Gigantopithecus descendant survived to populate the Himalayas or migrated into North America. For that matter, there’s no evidence that Bigfoot actually exists. If a live or dead Bigfoot is discovered and studied by scientists, that would definitely change a lot of things, and would be really, really exciting. But even if that happened, I’m pretty sure we’d find that Bigfoot wasn’t related to Gigantopithecus. Whether it would be related to Australopithecus and us humans is another thing, and that would be pretty awesome. But first, we have to find evidence that isn’t just some footprints in the mud or snow.

Some Bigfoot enthusiasts suggest that the reason we haven’t found any Bigfoot remains is the same reason why we don’t have Gigantopithecus bones, because porcupines eat them. But while porcupines do eat old dry bones they find, they don’t eat fresh bones and they don’t eat all the bones they find. For any bone to fossilize is rare, so the more bones that are around, the more likely that one or more of them will end up preserved as fossils. Bones of modern animals are much easier to find, porcupines or no, but we don’t have any Bigfoot bones. We don’t even have any Bigfoot teeth, which porcupines don’t eat.

Porcupines can be blamed for a lot of things, like chewing on people’s cars and houses, but you can’t blame them for eating up all the evidence for Bigfoot.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 347: Two (Sort of) Spooky Amphibians

Thanks to Max for suggesting one of our slightly spooky amphibians this week!

Further reading:

New crocodile newt discovered in Vietnam

Further watching:

Brave Wilderness Giant Screaming Frog!

The new Halloween-y crocodile newt discovered in Vietnam [photo by Phung My Trung and taken from the article linked above]:

A smoky jungle frog:

A screenshot from the video linked above:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s the end of September and you know what that means: we’re about to start Monster Month! This year I have so many awesome ideas for episodes that we’re starting monster month early, with a non-spooky episode about two sort of spooky-looking amphibians. Thanks to Max for suggesting one of the animals we’re about to talk about!

Instead of rating the monster month episodes on a spookiness scale from one to five ghosts, this year we’re rating them on a spookiness scale of one to five bats, which seems more appropriate. This episode is only one bat, meaning even our younger listeners shouldn’t find it scary.

But first, a quick correction. Thanks very much to Mary for catching a mistake I made in last week’s rhinoceros episode. I said that black rhinos can weigh 18 kilograms, when I should have said 1800 kilograms. 18 kg is about 40 pounds, so I think you can agree that I made a BIG mistake.

Now, on to the “spooky” amphibians.

Lots of amphibians live in southeast Asia, many of them never seen by scientists. In 2018, a team of scientists were studying crocodile newts in Vietnam when they discovered one that didn’t look like any of the many other crocodile newts that live in Asia. Since there are over 30 species known, with new ones being discovered all the time, including seven others from Vietnam alone, they suspected this might be a species new to science.

The new newt lives in high elevations in the central highlands in Vietnam, much farther south and in much higher elevations than the other known crocodile newt species. After the initial finding in 2018, the lead scientist, an amphibian and reptile expert named Phung My Trung (apologies because I probably pronounced his name wrong) spent four years searching for more specimens and learning about them before he described it as a new species.

One thing I love is that he was quoted as saying that the adult newts “were so beautiful that I was shaking and could hardly believe I was holding a live specimen in my hand.” And it is absolutely a gorgeous animal. It’s black with orangey-red markings on its back, lovely Halloween colors, and in fact the markings sort of look like the skull, backbone, and ribs of a cartoon skeleton. Females are bigger than males, and a big female can grow as much as 3 inches long, or 7.5 cm, from snout to vent, not counting its tail that’s almost as long as its body.

That’s pretty much all we know so far about this newt. Because it appears to have such a restricted range, it’s most likely endangered due to habitat loss and climate change, but now that we know it’s there, scientists and conservationists can work to keep it and its habitat safe.

Our other amphibian this week is one suggested by Max. Max, by the way, is an incredible artist who specializes in making reptiles and amphibians out of clay. Max asked specifically about the giant screaming frog, which definitely sounds like a Halloween-themed animal.

The giant screaming frog isn’t the actual name of the frog, or at least I couldn’t find a frog with that specific name. I think it’s from an awesome video posted in 2017. I’ll put a link in the show notes if you want to watch the video, which is a YouTube channel called Brave Wilderness. In the video, a man called Coyote Peterson catches a giant frog called the Smoky Jungle Frog. When he does, the frog makes this sound:

[screaming frog!]

That doesn’t actually sound all that spooky. But it is a warning call so I bet other smoky jungle frogs think it’s terrifying!

The smoky jungle frog lives in tropical and subtropical areas of Central and northern South America, where it lives in swamps, ponds, and even rivers, especially in rainforest environments. It’s a bit unusual in that males are larger than females, although only slightly. Both males and females grow about 7 inches long from snout to vent, or 18 cm, and are a mottled brown with darker spots and stripes that help them blend in with dead leaves on the forest floor.

The smoky jungle frog is nocturnal, and during the day it stays hidden in a burrow or buries itself in fallen leaves. At night it comes out to find food, and because it’s such a big, strong frog, it eats animals much larger than insects. It’s been observed eating small birds, especially baby birds, bats, snakes up to 19 inches long, or 50 cm, lizards, and sometimes even other frogs, including poison dart frogs. How embarrassing would that be if you were a bat, with strong wings and the amazing ability to echolocate, and you got eaten by a frog.

When a frog feels threatened, it has several ways to deter potential predators. It can make itself look even bigger by puffing its body up and standing up higher on its legs instead of sitting in a typical frog squat. It also secretes a toxin through its skin, which not only makes it really slippery but also makes it taste awful. It’s not dangerous to humans but can result in a painful burning sensation and rash if the toxin gets into a cut on the skin. If any of the mucus gets into your eyes, they will swell up painfully for hours.

The frog will also give its alarm call if something grabs it. Let’s listen to it again:

[frog ‘screaming’]

During mating season, the male develops little spikes near his wrists and on his chest. This helps him grasp a female without slipping off so he can fertilize her eggs as she lays them. The male uses his back legs to churn up the water and mix it with mucus and sperm to create a foamy nest for the female’s eggs, which protects the eggs from predators and makes sure they won’t dry out. The eggs hatch a few days later, and the tadpoles stay in the nest at first where they eat…well, they eat each other. The tadpoles that hatch first eat the other eggs, and the bigger tadpoles eat the smaller tadpoles. Soon, though, rain washes them out of the nest into open water, where they spend the next month or so eating small insects and algae until they metamorphose into little frogs that live on land. Unlike many frogs, the toes of the smoky jungle frog aren’t webbed since they don’t spend much time in the water.

So many times in this podcast I have to explain that an animal is endangered, so I’m happy to report that the smoky jungle frog is doing just fine. It’s a common animal throughout its range.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 346: The Rhinoceros!

Thanks to Mia for suggesting the black rhino this week! We’ll also learn about other rhinos and their relations, including a mystery rhino.

Further reading:

Photos suggest rhino horns have shrunk over past century

The Blue Rhinoceros – In Quest of the Keitloa

A rhino with a very small third horn:

Some rhinos have really big second horns [photo by David Clode and taken from this site]:

The “blue rhinoceros,” or keitloa, as illustrated in the mid-19th century:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to talk about an animal I can’t believe we haven’t covered before. Thanks to Mia for suggesting the rhinoceros, specifically the black rhino! We’ll also learn about a mystery rhino.

We’ve talked about elephants lots of times, hippos quite a few times, and giraffes a couple of times, but pretty much the only episodes where we discussed a rhinoceros were 5 and 256. Episode 256 was mostly about mammoths, although we talked very briefly about the woolly rhinoceros, while episode 5 was about the unicorn and didn’t actually specifically talk about the rhino. So after almost 350 episodes of this podcast, one of the most amazing animals alive is one we literally haven’t learned about! Let’s fix that now.

Most people are pretty familiar with what a rhinoceros looks like. Basically, it’s a big, heavy animal with relatively short legs, a big head that it carries low to the ground like a bison, and at least one horn that grows on its nose. It’s usually gray or gray-brown in color with very little hair, and its skin is tough. It eats plants.

The rhinoceros isn’t related to the elephant or the hippopotamus. It’s actually most closely related to the horse and the tapir, which are odd-toed ungulates. The rhino has three toes on each foot, with a little hoof-like nail covering the front of each toe, but the bottom of the rhino’s foot is a big pad similar to the bottom of an elephant’s foot.

The rhino’s nose horn isn’t technically a horn because it doesn’t have a bony core. It’s made of long fibers of keratin all stuck together, and keratin is the same protein that forms fingernails and hair. That makes it even weirder that some people think a rhinoceros horn is medicine. It’s literally the same protein as fingernails, and no one thinks of fingernails are medicine. The use of rhinoceros horn as medicine isn’t even all that old. Ancient people didn’t think it was medicine, but some modern people do, and they’ll pay a whole lot of money for part of a rhino horn to grind up and eat. Seriously, they might as well be eating ground-up fingernails. (That’s gross.)

Because rhino horns are so valuable, people will kill rhinos just to saw their horns off to sell. That’s the main reason why most species of rhino are so critically endangered, even though they’re protected animals. Sometimes conservationists will sedate a wild rhino and saw its horn off, so that poachers won’t bother to kill it. A 2022 study determined that the overall size of rhino horns has shrunk over the last century, probably for the same reason that many elephants now have overall smaller tusks. Poachers are more likely to kill animals with big horns, which means animals with smaller horns are more likely to survive long enough to breed.

The species of rhinoceros alive today are native to Africa and Asia, but it used to be an animal found throughout Eurasia and North America. It’s one of the biggest animals alive today, but in the past, some rhinos were even bigger. We’ve talked about Elasmotherium before, which lived in parts of Eurasia as recently as 39,000 years ago. It had long legs and could probably gallop like a horse, but it was the size of a mammoth. It also probably had a single horn that grew in the middle of its forehead, which is why it’s sometimes called the Siberian unicorn.

We’ve also talked about Paraceratherium before. It was one of the biggest land mammals that ever lived, and while it didn’t have a horn, it was a type of rhinoceros. It lived in Eurasia between about 34 and 23 million years ago, and it probably stood about 16 feet tall at the shoulder, or 5 meters. The tallest giraffe ever measured was 19 feet tall, or 5.88 meters, at the top of its head. Paraceratherium had a long neck, possibly as much as eight feet long, or 2.5 meters, but it would have held its neck more or less horizontal most of the time. It spent its time eating leaves off of trees that most animals couldn’t reach, and when it raised its head to grab a particularly tasty leaf, it was definitely taller than the tallest giraffe, and taller than any other mammal known.

While rhinos are famous for their horns, not every rhinoceros ancestor had a horn. But because rhino horns are made of keratin and not bone, we don’t always know if an extinct species had a horn. Most of the time the horns rotted away without being preserved. We do know that some ancient rhinos had a pair of nose horns that grew side by side, that some had a single nose horn or forehead horn, that some had both a nose horn and a forehead horn, and that some definitely had no horns at all.

The rhinos alive today have either one or two horns. The Indian rhinoceros has one horn on its nose, and the closely related Javan rhino also only has one horn. The Sumatran rhino has two horns, as do the white rhino and the black rhino. Sometimes an individual rhino will develop an extra horn that grows behind the other horn or horns and is usually very small. This is extremely rare and seems to be due to a genetic anomaly. There are even reports of rhinos that have four horns, all in a row, but the extra ones, again, are very small.

Mia specifically wanted to learn about the black rhino. It and the white rhino are native to Africa. You might think that the white rhino is pale gray and the black rhino is dark gray, but that’s actually not the case. They’re both sort of a medium gray in color and they’re very closely related. It’s possible that the word “white” actually comes from the Dutch word for “wide,” referring to the animal’s wide mouth. The black rhino has a more pointed lip that looks a little bit like a beak.

One interesting thing about the black and white rhinos is that neither species has teeth in the front of its mouth. It uses its lips to grab plants instead of its front teeth, and then it uses its big molars to chew the plants. The white rhino mostly eats grass while the black rhino eats leaves and other plant material.

A big male black rhino can stand over 5 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.75 meters, and is up to 13 feet long, or 4 meters. It can weigh as much as 4,000 lbs, or 1,800 kg. This sounds huge and it is, but it’s actually smaller than the white rhino, which is the biggest rhino alive today. A big male white rhino can stand over 6 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, or 2 meters, can be 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, and can weigh up to 5,300 lbs, or 2,400 kg. These are really really big animals. Nothing much messes with the rhino because it’s so big and heavy, its skin is so tough, and it can do a lot of damage with its horn if it wants to. The rhino doesn’t see very well, but it has good hearing and a good sense of smell.

The nose horn is always the bigger one in species that have two horns, and in the black rhino it can grow quite long. One nose horn was measured as being over 4 1/2 feet long, or 1.4 meters, although most are only about 20 inches long, or 50 cm. The rear horn, which grows roughly over the eyes, is about half the length of the front horn, and is sometimes no more than a little bump. But some black rhinos found in South Africa have a rear horn that’s at least as long as the front horn, and sometimes longer, and that brings us to our mystery rhino.

A rhino with this trait is referred to as a keitloa, a word taken from the Tswana language spoken in the area. In the 19th century, the keitloa was referred to by European colonizers as the blue rhinoceros. The blue rhino wasn’t blue, but it was considered quite rare and different from the ordinary black rhino. It was supposed to be bigger and and even more solitary than the black rhino.

Until 1881, many scientists thought the keitloa was a separate species of rhino from the black rhino, which it otherwise resembled. In 1881, though, a study of black rhinos and blue rhinos determined that they were the same species. A century later, in 1987, scientists found that black rhinos with better access to water grew larger horns than black rhinos living in dryer areas.

There are a number of subspecies of black rhino recognized by scientists, some of them still alive today and some driven recently to extinction. Some people still think that the keitloa may be a separate subspecies of black rhino. That’s one of many reasons why it’s so important to protect all rhinoceroses and their habitats, so we can learn more about these amazing animals.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 344: Psittacosaurus!

Thanks to Clay for suggesting this week’s topic, psittacosaurus! Thanks to Will for a correction about kangaroos too.

Don’t forget to check out the great podcast I Know Dino for all the best big dinosaur info!

Further reading:

What dinosaurs’ colour patterns say about their habitat

Unusual fossil shows rare evidence of a mammal attacking a dinosaur

A countershaded psittacosaurus model [photo by Jakob Vinther, from first article linked above]:

Repenomamus and psittacosaurus, fighting forever [photo from second article linked above]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to look at a dinosaur suggested by Clay, who has been very patient waiting for this one. In a huge coincidence, the podcast I Know Dino is trading promos with us, so if you haven’t heard about I Know Dino yet, make sure to listen until the very end of this episode for some more information about it. It’s a great podcast that I love to pieces, and I think you’ll love it too.

We also have a quick correction, and I feel really bad because this one should have gone in the updates episode last month. Will emailed me back in April to point out that in episode 73, about phantom kangaroos, I said that kangaroos and wallabies were native to Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea. In fact, they’re not native to New Zealand, although they’ve been introduced there. So yikes, that was a big oversight on my part, and thanks very much to Will!

Now, on to Clay’s suggestion, psittacosaurus!

Psittacosaurus was a type of ceratopsian that lived during the early Cretaceous, between about 125 and 100 million years ago. We’ve talked about ceratopsians before back in episode 125, so if you remember that episode you’ll know that ceratopsians were big herbivorous dinosaurs famous for their head frills and horns. Triceratops is the most famous example, although it had lots of relations. But Psittacosaurus was a very early ceratopsian, and it’s nothing like Triceratops.

If you had a time machine and went back to look at Psittacosaurus, you might not even think it was related to Triceratops at all. It didn’t have real horns or frills, most species were only about six and a half feet long at most, or two meters, but most importantly, it walked on its hind legs.

We have hundreds of Psittacosaurus fossils, so we know quite a bit about it. Young individuals apparently walked on all four legs, but as it grew up, Psittacosaurus became bipedal. It still ate plants, though, and may have specialized in eating seeds and other tough plant materials. It couldn’t chew its food the way later ceratopsians could, but it did swallow little stones to help it grind up hard plant parts. These gastroliths have been found preserved with Psittacosaurus fossils.

Psittacosaurus lived in what is now Asia, especially eastern and central Asia, and probably spent most of its time in forested areas. Because it lived only in the early Cretaceous, and because it was such a common animal with so many fossils found, if a paleontologist finds a Psittacosaurus fossil at a dig site, they can be pretty confident that the site dates to the early Cretaceous. Paleontologists have identified about twelve species of Psittacosaurus so far, although there’s still debate about the actual number of species, and at least some of them had feathers. We know because we have some well-preserved fossils with feather and skin impressions.

Psittacosaurus wasn’t completely covered with feathers, though. Its feathers were bristle-like and have only been found sticking up along the top of the tail. Scientists think they were probably used for display. That means they were probably brightly colored, so if you go back in that time machine I mentioned earlier, please make sure to take lots of pictures.

In fact, Clay said that Psittacosaurus looks like it’s “half parrot, half porcupine and half dinosaur” (that is actually one and a half animals, Clay, but we know what you mean and that actually is a really good description of it). Psittacosaurus’s bristles stuck up kind of like porcupine quills, although they weren’t sharp. Careful study of the quills shows that they were probably more like highly modified scales instead of feathers like you’d find on a modern bird, and that they grew around 6 inches long, or 15 cm. Some modern birds do actually have bristles like this, including the turkey. Most male turkeys, and some females, have a bundle of hair-like bristles on the breast that’s called a beard.

Psittacosaurus’s name means “parrot lizard” because of the shape of its beak, which may have helped it crack seeds and nuts. Its head kind of resembled that of a turtle, although unlike a turtle it also had teeth. Its head was broad with cheekbones that jutted out sideways, sometimes so far that it looked like it had horns on the sides of its face just above the jaw. At least one species had prominances behind the eye that again, kind of look like little horns but technically aren’t.

We even have a hint about what Psittacosaurus looked like. A study published in 2016 examined preserved melanosomes, which are the structures that pigment an animal’s skin and feathers. The study determined that Psittacosaurus had a light-colored belly and was darker on its back. This is called countershading and it’s very common because it acts as a form of camouflage.

As part of the study, scientists created two life-sized models of Psittacosaurus. One of them they painted gray all over, while the other they painted brown with lighter brown underparts. They took the models to the Bristol Botanic Garden in the UK, which has a section with plants from the Cretaceous. (This sounds awesome and I really want to visit.) They placed the models in various spots and photographed them, then compared how well the models were camouflaged. The countershaded model was most well camouflaged in forested areas, which matches up with what scientists know about how it lived.

In addition to the fossils with skin and feather impressions, we have lots of fossils of Psittacosaurus of all ages, from newly hatched to big old dinosaurs. We even have a fossilized juvenile Psittacosaurus preserved in what would have been the stomach of Repenomamus, and it looks like the little dinosaur was bitten into pieces before being swallowed. Repenomamus was a mammal that was built like a miniature badger.

For a long time scientists weren’t sure if Repenomamus hunted baby dinosaurs or just scavenged ones that were already dead. Then, in 2012, an amazing fossil was unearthed in China. A study of the prepared fossil was just released in July 2023.

The fossil is of two animals, Repenomamus and Psittacosaurus. The Psittacosaurus was bigger than the Repenomamus but not by much. The two animals died suddenly when they were buried in a mudslide following a volcanic eruption, and their skeletons are tangled up together. But this wasn’t just chance. A close look reveals details that show they’d been fighting ferociously even while the mudslide was bearing down on them. Repenomamus has one little front foot wrapped around the jaw of Psittacosaurus, a back foot wrapped around one of the dinosaur’s hind legs, and its jaws are biting at Psittacosaurus’s ribs. It looks like the mammal was winning the fight, but in this particular case no one got out alive.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Rediscover your love for dinosaurs with I Know Dino, the Big Dinosaur Podcast!

A new dinosaur is discovered and named nearly every week and I Know Dino covers the latest scientific discoveries, fun facts about dinosaurs, and a deep dive into a specific dinosaur.

I Know Dino is made by adults for adults, but we keep it clean so kids who are science buffs can listen too. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 342: Giant Snails and Giant Crabs

Thanks to Tobey and Anbo for their suggestions this week! We’re going to learn about some giant invertebrates!

Further reading:

The Invasive Giant African Land Snail Has Been Spotted in Florida

A very big shell:

The giant African snail is pretty darn giant [photo from article linked above]:

The largest giant spider crab ever measured, and a person:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about some giant invertebrates, suggested by Tobey and Anbo. Maybe they’re not as big as dinosaurs or whales, but they’re surprisingly big compared to most invertebrates.

Let’s start with Tobey’s suggestion, about a big gastropod. Gastropods include slugs and snails, and while Tobey suggested the African trumpet snail specifically, I couldn’t figure out which species of snail it is. But it did lead me to learning a lot about some really big snails.

The very biggest snail known to be alive today is called the Australian trumpet snail, Syrinx aruanus. This isn’t the kind of snail you’d find in your garden, though. It’s a sea snail that lives in shallow water off the coast of northern Australia, around Papua New Guinea, and other nearby areas. It has a coiled shell that’s referred to as spindle-shaped, because the coils form a point like the spindle of a tower. It’s a pretty common shape for sea snails and you’ve undoubtedly seen this kind of seashell before if you’ve spent any time on the beach. But unless you live in the places where the Australian trumpet lives, you probably haven’t seen a seashell this size. The Australian trumpet’s shell can grow up to three feet long, or 91 cm. Not only is this a huge shell, the snail itself is really heavy. It can weigh as much as 31 lbs, or 14 kg, which is as heavy as a good-sized dog.

The snail eats worms, but not just any old worms. If you remember episode 289, you might remember that Australia is home to the giant beach worm, a polychaete worm that burrows in the sand between high and low tide marks. It can grow as much as 8 feet long, or 2.4 meters, and probably longer. Well, that’s the type of worm the Australian trumpet likes to eat, along with other worms. The snail extends a proboscis into the worm’s burrow to reach the worm, but although I’ve tried to find out how it actually captures the worm in order to eat it, this seems to be a mystery. Like other gastropods, the Australian trumpet eats by scraping pieces of food into its mouth using a radula. That’s a tongue-like structure studded with tiny sharp teeth, and the Australian trumpet has a formidable radula. Some other sea snails, especially cone snails, are able to paralyze or outright kill prey by injecting it with venom via a proboscis, so it’s possible the Australian trumpet does too. The Australian trumpet is related to cone snails, although not very closely.

Obviously, we know very little about the Australian trumpet, even though it’s not hard to find. The trouble is that its an edible snail to humans and humans also really like those big shells and will pay a lot for them. In some areas people have hunted the snail to extinction, but we don’t even know how common it is overall to know if it’s endangered or not.

Tobey may have been referring to the giant African snail, which is probably the largest living land snail known. There are several snails that share the name “giant African snail,” and they’re all big, but the biggest is Lissachatina fulica. It can grow more than 8 inches long, or 20 cm, and its conical shell is usually brown and white with pretty banding in some of the whorls. It looks more like the shell of a sea snail than a land snail, but the shell is incredibly tough.

The giant African snail is an invasive species in many areas. Not only will it eat plants down to nothing, it will also eat stucco and concrete for the minerals they contain. It even eats sand, cardboard, certain rocks, bones, and sometimes other African giant snails, presumably when it runs out of trees and houses to eat. It can spread diseases to plants, animals, and humans, which is a problem since it’s also edible.

Like many snails, the African giant snail is a simultaneous hermaphrodite, meaning it can produce both sperm and eggs. It can’t self-fertilize its own eggs, but after mating a snail can keep any unused sperm alive in its body for up to two years, using it to fertilize eggs during that whole time, and it can lay up to 200 eggs five or six times a year. In other words, it only takes a single snail to produce a wasteland of invasive snails in a very short amount of time.

In June 2023, some African giant snails were found near Miami, Florida and officials placed the whole area under agricultural quarantine. That means no one can move any soil or plants out of the area without permission, since that could cause the snails to spread to other places. Meanwhile, officials are working to eradicate the snails. Other parts of Florida are also under the same quarantine after the snails were found the year before. Sometimes when people go on vacation in the Caribbean they bring back garden plants, without realizing that the soil in the pot contains giant African snail eggs, because the giant African snail is also an invasive species throughout the Caribbean.

Next, Anbo wanted to learn about the giant spider crab, also called the Japanese spider crab because it lives in the Pacific Ocean around Japan. It is indeed a type of crab, which is a crustacean, which is an arthropod, and it has the largest legspan of any arthropod known. Its body can grow 16 inches across, or 40 cm, and it can weigh as much as 42 pounds, or 19 kg, which is almost as big as the biggest lobster. But its legs are really really really long. Really long! It can have a legspan of 12 feet across, or 3.7 meters! That includes the claws at the end of its front legs. Most individual crabs are much smaller, but since crustaceans continue to grow throughout their lives, and the giant spider crab can probably live to be 100 years old, there’s no reason why some crabs couldn’t be even bigger than 12 feet across. Its long legs are delicate, though, and it’s rare to find an old crab that hasn’t had an injury to at least one leg.

The giant spider crab is orange with white spots, sort of like a koi fish but in crab form. Its carapace is also bumpy and spiky. You wouldn’t think a crab this size would need to worry about predators, but it’s actually eaten by large octopuses. The crab sticks small organisms like sponges and kelp to its carapace to help camouflage it.

The giant spider crab is considered a delicacy in some places, which has led to overfishing. It’s now protected in Japan, where people are only allowed to catch the crabs during part of the year. This allows the crabs to safely mate and lay eggs.

There’s another species called the European spider crab that has long legs, but it’s nowhere near the size of the giant spider crab. Its carapace width is barely 8 ½ inches across, or 22 cm, and its legs are about the same length. Remember that the giant spider crab’s legs can be up to six feet long each, or 1.8 meters. While the European spider crab does resemble the giant spider crab in many ways, it’s actually not closely related to it. They two species belong to separate families.

The giant spider crab spends most of its time in deep water, although in mating season it will come into shallower water. It uses its long legs to walk around on the sea floor, searching for food. It’s an omnivore that eats pretty much anything it can find, including plants, dead animals, and algae, but it will also use its claws to open mollusk shells and eat the animals inside. It prefers rocky areas of the sea floor, since its bumpy carapace blends in well among rocks.

Scientists report that the giant spider crab is mostly good-natured, even though it looks scary. Some big aquariums keep giant spider crabs, and the aquarium workers say the same thing. But it does have strong claws, and if it feels threatened it can seriously injure divers. I shouldn’t need to remind you not to pester a crab with a 12-foot legspan.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 341: The Leaf Sheep and the Mold Pig

Thanks to Murilo and an anonymous listener for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

The ‘sheep’ that can photosynthesize

Meet the ‘mold pigs,’ a new group of invertebrates from 30 million years ago

A leaf sheep:

Shaun the sheep:

A mold pig:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week let’s learn about two animals that sound like you’d find them on a farm, but they’re much different than their names imply. Thanks to Murilo for suggesting the leaf sheep, which is where we’ll start.

The leaf sheep isn’t a sheep or a leaf. It’s actually a type of sea slug that lives in tropical waters near Japan and throughout much of coastal south Asia. The reason it’s called a leaf sheep is because it actually looks a lot like a tiny cartoon sheep covered with green leaves instead of wool.

Back in episode 215 we talked about the sea bunny, which is another type of sea slug although it’s not closely related to the leaf sheep. The leaf sheep is even smaller than the sea bunny, which can grow up to an inch long, or about 25 mm. The leaf sheep only grows about 10 mm long at most, which explains why it wasn’t discovered until 1993. No one noticed it.

The leaf sheep’s face is white or pale yellow with two tiny black dots for eyes set close together, which kind of makes it look like Shaun the Sheep. It also has two black-tipped protuberances that look like ears, although they’re actually chemoreceptors called rhinophores. The rest of its body is covered with leaf-shaped spines called cerata, which are green and often tipped with pink, white, or black. This helps disguise it as a plant, but there’s another reason why it’s green.

The leaf sheep eats a particular kind of algae called Avrainvillea, which looks like moss or fuzzy carpet. While algae aren’t exactly plants or animals, many do photosynthesize like plants. In other words, they transform sunlight into energy to keep them alive. In order to photosynthesize, a plant or algae uses a special pigment called chlorophyll that makes up part of a chloroplast in its cells, which happens to be green.

The leaf sheep eats the algae, but it doesn’t digest the chloroplasts. Instead, it absorbs them into its own body and uses them for photosynthesis. That way it gets nutrients from eating and digesting algae and it gets extra energy from sunlight. This is a trait shared by other sea slugs in the superorder Sacoglossa. Because they need sunlight for photosynthesis, they live in shallow water, often near coral reefs.

When the leaf sheep’s eggs hatch, the larvae have shells, but as they mature they shed their shells.

This is a good place to talk about cyanobacteria, which was requested ages ago by an anonymous listener. Cyanobacteria mostly live in water and are also called blue-green algae, even though they’re not actually classified as algae. They’re considered bacteria, although not every scientist agrees. Some are unicellular, meaning they just consist of one cell, while others are multicellular like plants and animals, which means they have multiple cells specialized for different functions. Some other cyanobacteria group together in colonies. So basically, cyanobacteria looked at the chart of possible life forms and said, “yes, thanks, we’ll take some of everything.” That’s why it’s so hard to classify them.

Cyanobacteria photosynthesize, and they’ve been doing so for far longer than plants–possibly as much as 2.7 billion years, although scientists think cyanobacteria originally evolved around 3.5 billion years ago. The earth is about 4.5 billion years old and plants didn’t evolve until about 700 million years ago.

Like most plants also do, cyanobacteria produce oxygen as part of the photosynthetic process, and when they started doing so around 2.7 billion years ago, they changed the entire world. Before then, earth’s atmosphere hardly contained any oxygen. If you had a time machine and went back to more than two billion years ago, and you forgot to bring an oxygen tank, you’d instantly suffocate trying to breathe the air. But back then, even though animals and plants didn’t yet exist, the world contained a whole lot of microbial life, and none of it wanted anything to do with oxygen. Oxygen was toxic to the lifeforms that lived then, but cyanobacteria just kept producing it.

Cyanobacteria are tiny, but there were a lot of them. Over the course of about 700 million years, the oxygen added up until other lifeforms started to go extinct, poisoned by all that oxygen in the oceans and air. By two billion years ago, pretty much every lifeform that couldn’t evolve to use or at least tolerate oxygen had gone extinct. So take a deep breath of life-giving oxygen and thank cyanobacteria, which by the way are still around and still producing oxygen. However, they’re still up to their old tricks because they also produce what are called cyanotoxins, which can be deadly.

That brings us to another animal in our imaginary farm, the mold pig. It’s not a pig or a mold, and unlike the leaf sheep and cyanobacteria, it’s extinct. At least, we think it’s extinct.

The mold pig is a microinvertebrate only discovered in 2019. The only reason we know about it at all is because of amber found in the Dominican Republic, on an island in the Caribbean Sea. As we’ve discussed in past episodes, especially episode 108, amber is the fossilized resin of certain types of tree, and sometimes the remains of small animals are found inside. Often these animals are insects, but sometimes even tinier creatures are preserved that we would otherwise probably never know about.

The mold pig was about 100 micrometers long, or .1 millimeter. You’ve probably heard of the tardigrade, or water bear, which we talked about in episode 234, and if so you might think the mold pig was a type of tardigrade just from looking at it, since it looks similar. It had four pairs of legs like tardigrades do, but while scientists think they were related, and that the mold pig was probably also related to mites, it was different enough that it’s been classified in its own genus and may need to belong to its own phylum. Its official name is Sialomorpha.

The mold pig probably ate mold, fungus, and microscopic invertebrates. It lived around 30 million years ago, and right now that’s about all we know about it. There’s a good chance that it still survives somewhere in the world, but it’s so tiny that it’s even easier to overlook than the leaf sheep. Maybe you will be the person who rediscovers its living descendants.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 338: Updates 6 and an Arboreal Clam!?!

This week we have our annual updates and corrections episode, and at the end of the episode we’ll learn about a really weird clam I didn’t even think was real at first.

Thanks to Simon and Anbo for sending in some corrections!

Further reading:

Lessons on transparency from the glass frog

Hidden, never-before-seen penguin colony spotted from space

Rare wild asses spotted near China-Mongolia border

Aye-Ayes Use Their Elongated Fingers to Pick Their Nose

Homo sapiens likely arose from multiple closely related populations

Scientists Find Earliest Evidence of Hominins Cooking with Fire

153,000-Year-Old Homo sapiens Footprint Discovered in South Africa

Newly-Discovered Tyrannosaur Species Fills Gap in Lineage Leading to Tyrannosaurus rex

Earth’s First Vertebrate Superpredator Was Shorter and Stouter than Previously Thought

252-Million-Year-Old Insect-Damaged Leaves Reveal First Fossil Evidence of Foliar Nyctinasty

The other paleo diet: Rare discovery of dinosaur remains preserved with its last meal

The Mongolian wild ass:

The giant barb fish [photo from this site]:

Enigmonia aenigmatica, AKA the mangrove jingle shell, on a leaf:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week is our annual updates and corrections episode, but we’ll also learn about the mangrove jingle shell, a clam that lives in TREES. A quick reminder that this isn’t a comprehensive updates episode, because that would take 100 years to prepare and would be hours and hours long, and I don’t have that kind of time. It’s just whatever caught my eye during the last year that I thought was interesting.

First, we have a few corrections. Anbo emailed me recently with a correction from episode 158. No one else caught this, as far as I can remember. In that episode I said that geckos don’t have eyelids, and for the most part that’s true. But there’s one family of geckos that does have eyelids, Eublepharidae. This includes the leopard gecko, and that lines up with Anbo’s report of having a pet leopard gecko who definitely blinked its eyes. This family of geckos are sometimes even called eyelid geckos. Also, Anbo, I apologize for mispronouncing your name in last week’s episode about shrimp.

After episode 307, about the coquí and glass frogs, Simon pointed out that Hawaii doesn’t actually have any native frogs or amphibians at all. It doesn’t even have any native reptiles unless you count sea snakes and sea turtles. The coqui frog is an invasive species introduced by humans, and because it has no natural predators in Hawaii it has disrupted the native ecosystem in many places, eating all the available insects. Three of the Hawaiian islands remain free of the frogs, and conservationists are working to keep it that way while also figuring out ways to get them off of the other islands. Simon also sent me the chapter of the book he’s working on that talks about island frogs, and I hope the book is published soon because it is so much fun to read!

Speaking of frogs, one week after episode 307, an article about yet another way the glass frog is able to hide from predators was published in Science. When a glass frog is active, its blood is normal, but when it settles down to sleep, the red blood cells in its blood collect in its liver. The liver is covered with teensy guanine crystals that scatter light, which hides the red color from view. That makes the frog look even more green and leaf-like!

We’ve talked about penguins in several episodes, and emperor penguins specifically in episode 78. The emperor penguin lives in Antarctica and is threatened by climate change as the earth’s climate warms and more and more ice melts. We actually don’t know all that much about the emperor penguin because it lives in a part of the world that’s difficult for humans to explore. In December 2022, a geologist named Peter Fretwell was studying satellite photos of Antarctica to measure the loss of sea ice when he noticed something strange. Some of the ice had brown stains.

Dr Fretwell knew exactly what those stains were: emperor penguin poop. When he obtained higher-resolution photos, he was able to zoom in and see the emperor penguins themselves. But this wasn’t a colony he knew about. It was a completely undiscovered colony.

In episode 292 we talked about a mystery animal called the kunga, and in that episode we also talked a lot about domestic and wild donkeys. We didn’t cover the Mongolian wild ass in that one, but it’s very similar to wild asses in other parts of the world. It’s also called the Mongolian khulan. It used to be a lot more widespread than it is now, but these days it only lives in southern Mongolia and northern China. It’s increasingly threatened by habitat loss, climate change, and poaching, even though it’s a protected animal in both Mongolia and China.

In February of 2023, a small herd of eight Mongolian wild asses were spotted along the border of both countries, in a nature reserve. A local herdsman noticed them first and put hay out to make sure the donkeys had enough to eat. The nature reserve has a water station for wild animals to drink from, and has better grazing these days after grassland ecology measures were put into place several years ago.

In episode 233 we talked about the aye-aye of Madagascar, which has weird elongated fingers. Its middle finger is even longer and much thinner than the others, which it uses to pull invertebrates from under tree bark and other tiny crevices. Well, in October of 2022 researchers studying aye-ayes started documenting another use for this long thin finger. The aye-ayes used it to pick their noses. It wasn’t just one aye-aye that wasn’t taught good manners, it was widespread. And I hope you’re not snacking while I tell you this, the aye-aye would then lick its finger clean. Yeah. But the weirdest thing is that the aye-aye’s thin finger is so long that it can potentially reach right through the nose right down into the aye-aye’s throat.

It’s pretty funny and gross, but wondering why some animals pick their noses is a valid scientific question. A lot of apes and monkeys pick their noses, as do humans (not that we admit it most of the time), and now we know aye-ayes do too. The aye-aye is a type of lemur and therefore a primate, but it’s not very closely related to apes and monkeys. Is this just a primate habit or is it only seen in primates because we have fingers that fit into our nostrils? Would all mammals pick their nose if they had fingers that would fit up in there? Sometimes if you have a dried snot stuck in your nose, it’s uncomfortable, but picking your nose can also spread germs if your fingers are dirty. So it’s still a mystery why the aye-aye does it.

A recent article in Nature suggests that Homo sapiens, our own species, may have evolved not from a single species of early human but from the hybridization of several early human species. We already know that humans interbred with Neandertals and Denisovans, but we’re talking about hybridization that happened long before that between hominin species that were even more closely related.

The most genetically diverse population of humans alive today are the Nama people who live in southern Africa, and the reason they’re so genetically diverse is that their ancestors have lived in that part of Africa since humans evolved. Populations that migrated away from the area, whether to different parts of Africa or other parts of the world, had a smaller gene pool to draw from as they moved farther and farther away from where most humans lived.

Now, a new genetic study of modern Nama people has looked at changes in DNA that indicate the ancestry of all humans. The results suggest that before about 120,000 to 135,000 years ago, there was more than one species of human, but that they were all extremely closely related. Since these were all humans, even though they were ancient humans and slightly different genetically, it’s probable that the different groups traded with each other or hunted together, and undoubtedly people from different groups fell in love just the way people do today. Over the generations, all this interbreeding resulted in one genetically stable population of Homo sapiens that has led to modern humans that you see everywhere today. To be clear, as I always point out, no matter where people live or what they look like, all people alive today are genetically human, with only minor variations in our genetic makeup. It’s just that the Nama people still retain a lot of clues about our very distant ancestry that other populations no longer show.

To remind everyone how awesome out distant ancestors were, here’s one new finding of how ancient humans lived. We know that early humans and Neandertals were cooking their food at least 170,000 years ago, but recently archaeologists found the remains of an early hominin settlement in what is now Israel where people were cooking fish 780,000 years ago. There were different species of fish remains found along with the remains of cooking fires, and some of the fish are ones that have since gone extinct. One was a carp-like fish called the giant barb that could grow 10 feet long, or 3 meters.

In other ancient human news, the oldest human footprint was discovered recently in South Africa. You’d think that we would have lots of ancient human footprints, but that’s actually not the case when it comes to footprints more than 50,000 years old. There are only 14 human footprints older than that, although there are older footprints found made by ancestors of modern humans. The newly discovered footprint dates to 153,000 years ago.

It wouldn’t be an updates episode without mentioning Tyrannosaurus rex. In late 2022 a newly discovered tyrannosaurid was described. It lived about 76 million years ago in what is now Montana in the United States, and while it wasn’t as big as T. rex, it was still plenty big. It probably stood about seven feet high at the hip, or a little over 2 meters, and might have been 30 feet long, or 9 meters. It probably wasn’t a direct ancestor of T. rex, just a closely related cousin, although we don’t know for sure yet. It’s called Daspletosaurus wilsoni and it shows some traits that are found in older Tyrannosaur relations but some that were more modern at the time.

Dunkleosteus is one of a number of huge armored fish that lived in the Devonian period, about 360 million years ago. We talked about it way back in episode 33, back in 2017, and at that time paleontologists thought Dunkleosteus terrelli might have grown over 30 feet long, or 9 meters. It had a heavily armored head but its skeleton was made of cartilage like a shark’s, and cartilage doesn’t generally fossilize, so while we have well-preserved head plates, we don’t know much about the rest of its body.

With the publication in early 2023 of a new study about dunkleosteus’s size, we’re pretty sure that 30 feet was a huge overestimation. It was probably less than half that length, maybe up to 13 feet long, or almost 4 meters. Previous size estimates used sharks as size models, but dunkleosteus would have been shaped more like a tuna. Maybe you think of tuna as a fish that makes a yummy sandwich, but tuna are actually huge and powerful predators that can grow up to 10 feet long, or 3 meters. Tuna are also much heavier and bigger around than sharks, and that was probably true for dunkleosteus too. The study’s lead even says dunkleosteus was built like a wrecking ball, and points out that it was probably the biggest animal alive at the time. I’m also happy to report that people have started calling it chunk-a-dunk.

We talked about trace fossils in episode 103. Scientists can learn a lot from trace fossils, which is a broad term that encompasses things like footprints, burrows, poops, and even toothmarks. Recently a new study looked at insect damage on leaves dating back 252 million years and learned something really interesting. Some modern plants fold up their leaves at night, called foliar nyctinasty, which is sometimes referred to as sleeping. The plant isn’t asleep in the same way that an animal falls asleep, but “sleeping” is a lot easier to say than foliar nyctinasty. Researchers didn’t know if folding leaves at night was a modern trait or if it’s been around for a long time in some plants. Lots of fossilized leaves are folded over, but we can’t tell if that happened after the leaf fell off its plant or after the plant died.

Then a team of paleontologists from China and Sweden studying insect damage to leaves noticed that some leaves had identical damage on both sides, exactly as though the leaf had been folded and an insect had eaten right through it. That’s something that happens in modern plants when they’re asleep and the leaves are folded closed.

The team looked at fossilized leaves from a group of trees called gigantopterids, which lived between 300 and 250 million years ago. They’re extinct now but were advanced plants at the time, some of the earliest flowering plants. They also happen to have really big leaves that often show insect damage. The team determined that the trees probably did fold their leaves while sleeping.

In episode 151 we talked about fossils found with other fossils inside them. Basically it’s when a fossil is so well preserved that the contents of the dead animal’s digestive system are preserved. This is incredibly rare, naturally, but recently a new one was discovered.

Microraptor was a dinosaur that was only about the size of a modern crow, one of the smallest dinosaurs, and it probably looked a lot like a weird bird. It could fly, although probably not very well compared to modern birds, and in addition to front legs that were modified to form wings, its back legs also had long feathers to form a second set of wings.

Several exceptionally well preserved Microraptor fossils have been discovered in China, some of them with parts of their last meals in the stomach area, including a fish, a bird, and a lizard, so we knew they were generalist predators when it came to what they would eat. Now we have another Microraptor fossil with the fossilized foot of a mammal in the place where the dinosaur’s stomach once was. So we know that Microraptor ate mammals as well as anything else it could catch, although we don’t know what kind of mammal this particular leg belonged to. It may be a new species.

Let’s finish with the mangrove jingle shell. I’ve had it on the list for a long time with a lot of question marks after it. It’s a clam that lives in trees, and I actually thought it might be an animal made up for an April fool’s joke. But no, it’s a real clam that really does live in trees.

The mangrove jingle shell lives on the mangrove tree. Mangroves are adapted to live in brackish water, meaning a mixture of fresh and salt water, or even fully salt water. They mostly live in tropical or subtropical climates along coasts, and especially like to live in waterways where there’s a tide. The tide brings freshly oxygenated water to its roots. A mangrove tree needs oxygen to survive just like animals do, but it has trouble getting enough through its roots when they’re underwater. Its root system is extensive and complicated, with special types of roots that help it stay upright when the tide goes out and special roots called pneumatophores, which stick up above the water or soil and act as straws, allowing the tree to absorb plenty of oxygen from the air even when the rest of the root system is underwater. These pneumatophores are sometimes called knees, but different species of mangrove have different pneumatophore shapes and sizes.

One interesting thing about the mangrove tree is that its seeds actually sprout while they’re still attached to the parent tree. When it’s big enough, the seedling drops off its tree into the water and can float around for a long time before it finds somewhere to root. If can even survive drying out for a year or more.

The mangrove jingle shell clam lives in tropical areas of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, and is found throughout much of coastal southeast Asia all the way down to parts of Australia. It grows a little over one inch long, or 3 cm, and like other clams it finds a place to anchor itself so that water flows past it all the time and it can filter tiny food particles from the water. It especially likes intertidal areas, which happens to be the same area that mangroves especially like.

Larval jingle shells can swim, but they need to find somewhere solid to anchor themselves as they mature. When a larva finds a mangrove root, it attaches itself and grows a domed shell. If it finds a mangrove leaf, since mangrove branches often trail into the water, it attaches itself to the underside and grows a flatter shell. Clams attached to leaves are lighter in color than clams attached to roots or branches. Fortunately, the mangrove is an evergreen tree that doesn’t drop its leaves every year.

So there you have it. Arboreal clams! Not a hoax or an April fool’s joke.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 335: Large Blue Butterfly vs Ants

We’re kicking off July with a beautiful butterfly that does horrible things to ants!

Further reading:

UK Butterflies – Large Blue

The large blue butterfly (picture taken from page linked above):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I recently realized that I have so many weird and interesting invertebrates saved up to feature for invertebrate August that I can’t fit them all into one month, so let’s kick off invertebrate August in July!

This week we’re going to learn about a beautiful butterfly called the large blue, because it is both large and blue. Well, sort of large. The butterfly has a wingspan of up to two inches, or about 5 cm. Its wings are a dusty blue with black spots, although there are a lot of regional differences. Some populations are almost black, some are more tan than blue, and some don’t have spots.

The large blue lives throughout much of Eurasia, although its numbers have decreased in many places in the last 50 years or so. In some places it’s even gone extinct, mainly due to habitat loss. It needs specific host plants for the caterpillars to eat, and it also needs a particular type of ant in order for the caterpillars to survive–because the large blue caterpillar is a brood parasite!

We’ve talked about brood parasites before in birds, where a bird will lay an egg in the nest of a different species of bird. In the case of the large blue butterfly, in summertime the female lays her eggs on wild thyme or marjoram plants near a colony of red ants in the genus Myrmica [meer-mee-kuh]. She usually only lays one egg on any given plant.

When the eggs hatch, the newly emerged caterpillars feed on plants at first, just like any other caterpillar, especially the flowers of the plant. If more than one large blue caterpillar is on a plant and they encounter each other, one of them will grab the other and eat it. Drama among the thyme plants! The caterpillar goes through three growth stages, called instars, as an ordinary caterpillar (except for the cannibalism thing), but once it reaches the fourth instar it starts acting very different.

The caterpillar drops to the ground and releases a chemical that mimics the smell of the Myrmica ant larvae. When an ant finds a caterpillar, the caterpillar will rear up so that it resembles an ant larva. The ant usually takes it back to its nest at this point, but sometimes the caterpillar will just follow an ant trail and enter the nest on its own. Either way, the ants will assume it’s a lost baby and take it to the nesting chamber, where they feed and take care of it.

The caterpillar is bigger than a usual ant larva, but it uses this to its advantage. It mimics the sounds made by a queen ant, which means the ants take extra good care of it. If the ants run out of regular food to feed the caterpillar, they will even start feeding it real ant larvae. But sometimes the caterpillar gets impatient, or maybe just hungry, and will just start eating the other pupating ant larvae.

The system isn’t perfect, because a lot of times the ants figure out that the caterpillar is an intruder and will kill and eat it. If the queen ant encounters the caterpillar, she recognizes that it isn’t an ant larva and will attack it. Sometimes the ants just up and abandon the nest, leaving the caterpillar behind. In that case, the caterpillar will either leave the nest itself and find another one, or it will wait for a new ant colony to find the nest and move in. This can actually happen repeatedly during the nine months or so that the caterpillar requires to finish growing, although during the winter the caterpillar is more or less dormant.

Around the end of spring, the caterpillar spins a cocoon and pupates right there in the ant nest. The ants continue to take care of it, making sure the pupa is clean. When it emerges as a new butterfly after a few weeks, it has to find its way out of the ant nest and to the surface, where it climbs a plant stem and rests while its wings inflate and dry. The adult butterflies only live for a few weeks, eating flower nectar, especially of the thyme plant.

One of the places where the large blue butterfly went extinct was in the British Isles, where it was last seen in 1979. Before that, though, scientists already recognized that the species was in danger in Britain. They knew that the butterflies needed wild thyme and Myrmica ants, and made sure to plant lots of the thyme in areas with lots of Myrmica ant colonies. But the butterflies still declined until none were left in Britain. It turns out that the large blue butterfly requires a particular species of Myrmica ant, Myrmica sabuleti, and if the caterpillars are adopted by other ant species, they aren’t usually successful in surviving to grow up.

Fortunately, a few years later, scientists re-introduced large blue butterflies to Britain from Sweden, and this time it worked. Not only are there still large blue butterflies in Britain again, they’re now more common in Britain than anywhere else throughout its range.

Other butterflies closely related to the large blue also act as brood parasites to Myrmica ants, but to different species. There are probably more butterflies that do this than we know, since it takes a lot of very careful observation of the butterflies, caterpillars, and ants to determine what exactly is going on. Considering that even the ants don’t really know what’s going on, it’s no surprise that scientists have trouble figuring it out too.

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